Manure discharge can be seen across from the Noble Dairy in southern Oregon on March 29, 2019. (Photo provided by Oregon Department of Agriculture)

Noble Family Dairy, about 13 miles southeast of Grants Pass, dumped the manure for at least 20 days in 2019 and faced state charges and a civil penalty in 2020. The dairy also had more cows than allowed under its Confined Animal Feeding Operation, or CAFO, permit, with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Under the permit, they could have 1,630 cows. Instead, they had 1,760.

On Wednesday, the owners of the dairy, Larry and Sharon Noble, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Medford to violating their waste discharge permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a misdemeanor under the federal Clean Water Act. The agency ordered the operation to pay a $25,000 fine to the U.S. government. Under federal law, the business could have been fined $25,000 for every day it was in violation of its permit or nearly $500,000 total, according to court documents

The Nobles did not respond to phone calls and an email requesting comment by Wednesday night.

The illegal disposal of manure into the Applegate River for at least 20 days between March and April 2019 caused significantly high levels of E. coli in the Applegate River for months, court records said. Testing in late March 2019 revealed the water downstream of the dairy had more than 1,500 times the acceptable level of E. coli under state water quality standards. When ingested, E. coli bacteria can cause severe intestinal and urinary tract problems, pneumonia, meningitis, kidney failure and even death. The U.S. attorneys prosecuting the case described it in court documents as “a serious offense that posed a risk to the environment and the public.” 

Overflowing manure

Larry Noble’s father bought the dairy in 1972, and Larry and Sharon converted it to an organic dairy about 20 years ago, according to a June 2021 article on the business from a farm trade and supply site. At the time, the dairy employed 25 people and, according to court documents, it supplies all of the organic milk sold by Umpqua Dairy.

The Nobles’ trouble began in February 2019, when their high number of cows caused manure lagoons to fill quickly, court documents said. The lagoons are permitted to hold liquid manure produced by the animals. 

Caris Creek full of cow manure discharged from the Noble Family Dairy. (Photo provided by Oregon Department of Agriculture)

In response, the Nobles and employees sprayed the excess manure on the dairy’s farm fields and dug a trench to capture any runoff during rain that would flow into Caris Creek and downstream to the Applegate River. The trench failed under heavy rain and flooding, causing it to break and the manure to leak into the creek and into the Applegate River for at least 20 days, court records show. While the trench was leaking and the rainy season ongoing, the Nobles continued to spread excess liquid manure across farm fields, another violation of the permit. 

An inspector from the state Department of Agriculture, acting on complaints to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, visited the farm on March 29, 2019 and found more than a foot of solid manure along the trench. 

“The inspector further observed what appeared to be islands of solid manure in Caris Creek and manure visibly discharging from the creek into the Applegate River,” according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Justice. 

The Oregon Department of Agriculture issued a notice to the dairy, which ultimately paid a fine of $25,465 to the agency, and required the business to show regular compliance with its waste permit during a two-year probation period, according to court documents.

Proposed legislation

Several bills in the recent legislative session targeted CAFOs and called for stricter regulations on their land and water use. One that would have put a moratorium on the expansion or establishment of new operations failed. But Senate Bill 85, which passed on partisan lines with Democrats in favor, would require new operations and those that wish to expand to be inspected first by the state agriculture department. 

It also would require such operations to notify all property owners within half a mile and set restrictions on the use of groundwater. Previously, people operating large animal facilities could pull as much groundwater as needed without a water right and without reporting water use to the Oregon Water Resources Department. 

The bill is awaiting Gov. Tina Kotek’s signature.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.